In the final days of the just-ended, very long presidential campaign, when supportive crowds booed President Obama’s mention of opponent Mitt Romney and the GOP Congress, he delivered his usual response, “Don’t boo, vote. Vote!” then added, “Voting is the best revenge.” He was he hammered for it, of course, with Romney interpreting it to mean that Obama wanted supporters to “vote for revenge.”
The president, by paraphrasing an old saying, was picking up on a mood of pent-up frustration felt by many who had voted for him in 2008. No one ever expected a president of the United States to govern without criticism or partisan sniping. What they hoped was that Barack Obama — a man born without wealth or privilege, whose life story exhibited the best of the American dream — would, once he worked his way to the White House, be accorded the simple respect due that special office.
For Obama’s fired-up followers, it proved more evidence that the GOP candidate was out of touch. Telling voters without millions to pour into super PACs to use the only voice they have is a good thing. In a year when many saw that precious right treated as political gamesmanship by Republican-led voter-ID efforts in states across the country, what better way to say “enough.”
I heard calls for justice, not vengeance, from volunteers and voters on the 2012 campaign trail. When I asked, and even when I didn’t, I heard countless other reasons why many couldn’t wait to go to the polls.
Start with “President Obama.” The words went missing far too often as critics referred to him as Obama or Barry, a nickname he hasn’t used for a long time, or worse. South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson yelled out, “You lie!” and was rewarded for behavior we’d punish our kids for. Rich Romney supporter Donald Trump created his own sideshow, with birther theories, calls for college records (as though head of the Harvard Law Review became some sort of undeserved prize the moment Obama earned it), and post-election Tweets he later deleted calling for “revolution.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor came in for some of the same treatment when her award-winning rise from modest beginnings to Princeton and Yale Law was dismissed as an affirmative-action fluke. (And the GOP wonders why Hispanic voters rushed to Obama on Tuesday.)
Obama was labeled a bad Christian, or, no, a Muslim, born in Kenya and elevated to the Oval Office in some sort of conspiratorial plot. His whole family – a picture of solid and strong love that for anyone with sense was a model – was dragged into the loop of disrespect, reaching its low point when the president’s late mother became the subject of a disgusting joke from a federal judge.
Romney surrogate John Sununu was a regular on the gaffe trail, as he questioned the president’s American identity and treated Republican Colin Powell not as a patriot but a “black guy” playing follow the leader.
You know what to expect from radioactive Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. (Though when Romney said Limbaugh’s crude rant about Georgetown student Sandra Fluke was not “the language I would have used,” women and the men who respect them cringed.) People who should know better – like that judge and Sununu – joined in, others stood silent. That’s the worst part of it. The poor and middle class don’t envy or hate people with great wealth. They do wish they would act with some class and character instead of blaming those in poverty for lacking both.
Romney told his own casual birther joke, approved false welfare ads with barely disguised racial appeals, and delivered a speech to the NAACP designed to raise ire and valuable photo ops and little else. His last-minute Ohio ads on the auto bailout took workers there for fools and probably backfired.
So, at the end of four years in which the opposition acknowledged few accomplishments without reservation, an increasingly hoarse Obama unleashed some of the emotion he must have been feeling while absorbing personal body blows. Just as living is the best revenge against those who would keep you down, voting was indeed the best revenge for such a long list of personal insult.
There was no retaliation for his similarly slighted supporters as they followed the president’s lead of turning the other cheek at each knock against his character and citizenship, his heart, mind and soul. Though every one of those hits stung — for women, minorities, young people, union workers, teachers and the rest – they just voted, not for revenge but for a bit of respect.
At least now, everyone’s paying attention.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3